Japan, China move to rebuild relationship ahead of diplomatic milestone

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Tiananmen Square in Beijing

Recent high-level talks between Takeo Akiba, secretary general of the National Security Secretariat, and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi were aimed at rebuilding relations between Japan and China, which had lacked momentum for dialogue in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties.

With many issues pending between the two countries, realizing constructive and stable bilateral relations is likely to prove challenging.

The Japanese government had proposed holding a foreign ministerial meeting with China on Aug. 4 on the sidelines of an international conference in Cambodia. Tokyo had hoped the meeting would be “a first step toward laying the groundwork” ahead of the milestone anniversary, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry source. However, China canceled the meeting following U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

The talks between Akiba and Yang, which lasted for seven hours on Wednesday, became an opportunity to launch efforts to rebuild bilateral ties.

It was the first in-person meeting in about 2½ years between a secretary general of the National Security Secretariat and Yang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. Yang visited Japan in February 2020 and met with then National Security Secretariat secretary general Shigeru Kitamura.

Some members of the Japanese government viewed Wednesday’s high-level talks positively, with one saying, “It was good that both sides exchanged views on pending issues between Japan and China.”

The focus will now be on whether a summit between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be realized leading up to the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties in September.

Japan is likely to engage in diplomacy with China cautiously, while keeping a watchful eye on Beijing’s activities, such as intrusions by China Coast Guard vessels into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture.

China, for its part, apparently wants to stabilize relations with Japan as its confrontation with the United States has deepened over Taiwan. Xi is facing a situation in which he needs to demonstrate stability both at home and abroad ahead of a party congress this autumn where he is expected to seek a third term.

During the talks with Akiba, Yang stressed the importance of stable relations between Japan and China, saying that peaceful coexistence and friendly cooperation are the only options for the relationship between the two countries. The Chinese side avoided direct criticism of Japan in a statement released after the talks.

On the other hand, Yang said during the talks that both countries should maintain their own views and eliminate domestic and external distractions, while calling for Japan to “move in the right direction of peaceful development.”

These remarks were apparently intended to caution Japan over its efforts to strengthen cooperation with the United States in such fields as security and increased defense spending.